Actor of elegance and poise, who famously played a gibbering wreck in the 'Pink Panther' films
Herbert Lom, the actor, who has died aged 95, brought to the screen a remarkable gallery of monarchs and gangsters, psychiatrists and spies, dictators and assassins, cops and robbers. A ladykiller and several times Napoleon, he will, above all, be remembered as the French police chief driven gradually mad by the antics of Peter Sellers' Inspector Jacques Clouseau in the Pink Panther series of films.
The gibbering, nervous wreck -- eyelids twitching uncontrollably -- to which Lom, as Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus, is reduced by Clouseau is likely to remain one of film's most enduring and beloved comic turns. But its huge success masked the fact that, in a career spanning half a century, Lom's characters were overwhelmingly elegant, poised and suave.
The Pink Panther also overshadowed the fact that he had the looks to be cast as a romantic lead. Lom himself would have liked to have been cast in more such parts, though the bedside manner of his psychiatrist in The Seventh Veil and The Human Jungle proved exceptionally attractive to women.
In the end, most of his film roles were variations of a smooth villain with a foreign accent -- he was usually well-dressed, and often sported a cigarette holder, sometimes even a buttonhole. The result was a faintly sinister manner and air of mystery that was itself highly intoxicating.
He used to attribute being cast so often as a shifty outsider to having arrived in London from his birthplace, Prague, just before the Second World War, when film producers were seeking actors to impersonate the Nazis. "In British eyes," he once ruefully remarked, "anyone foreign is slightly villainous."
He was born Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru. Although his parents wanted him to become a doctor, he attended the Prague School of Acting and then ran a small theatre in the city, finding work in Czech films. It was in flight from the Nazis that, aged 22, he arrived in Britain to study Philosophy at Cambridge University and to act at the Vic-Wells and Embassy schools in London.
During the war he worked for the BBC European Service and in various repertory and touring companies before establishing himself in films. In The Young Mr Pitt (1942) he played Napoleon before, in 1945, becoming the psychiatrist Dr Larsen in The Seventh Veil (1945). It was a part for which he was highly suited, as in his youth Lom had studied Freud and Jung. He had even used hypnosis with friends under medical supervision. Though he had "to age" considerably for the role, his casting was a masterstroke.
Six years later, in 1951, the same fictitious character, Dr Larsen, brought Lom his first West End stage appearance, a welcome departure from his relentless film parts as a sly and doomed opponent of Britain's interests.
In casting him as such, producers overlooked his poise and similarity to the great romantic lead of the pre-war era, Charles Boyer. In contrast to Boyer, Lom rarely found a sympathetic role outside the field of psychiatry on screen, and it was to the London stage that he turned to get a break.
In The King and I (Drury Lane, 1953), for example, he gave the monarch great dignity and charm, opposite Valerie Hobson. Much later, in William Douglas-Home's Betzi (Haymarket, 1975), he gave Napoleon a powerful and at times moving presence in his last years of exile on St Helena, though scarcely anybody else in the play came to life.
By then he had played the French leader twice before in films -- in The Young Mr Pitt and in War and Peace (1956). At the time of the latter, he was established, with more than two dozen film credits to his name. Then, in 1963, he moved to the small screen for the television series The Human Jungle, charming the nation again (for once not menacingly) as Dr Roger Corder, a Harley Street psychiatrist -- a part that brought him no little fan mail.
The letters were almost exclusively from women and read, in effect: "Now we know a psychiatrist as nice as Dr Corder, we won't hesitate to consult our local man."
It was a sentiment that pleased Lom, since he supposed that many people were afraid of psychiatry and liked to think that he was helping to break down barriers; he had no qualms about consulting psychiatrist friends himself if he felt the need. He denied that the series merely popularised mental illness. "We are popularising mental cure," he insisted, and a psychiatrist advised on every script.
Each story was based on a real case, though Lom felt that the fiction oversimplified the issue. He also realised that Dr Corder as a character was boring -- he was not allowed to fall in love, and although the central character, had to stay in the background. "The patients are the scene-stealers," said Lom. "My ambition now is to play one of them."
His chance came, so to speak, in the Pink Panther films, in which he proved the perfect foil for Peter Sellers. As the harassed, hapless and fumingly indignant Dreyfus, Lom survived in the series for more than 20 years.
From the outset, in A Shot In The Dark (1964), Lom's Dreyfus had a job to keep his sanity in the face of Sellers's exasperating incompetence. By the time the series reached Curse of the Pink Panther (1985) he was usually confined to a mental hospital, though ever anxious to keep twitchingly in touch with the activities of his out-of-control underling. The films gave Lom a rare chance to display his talents as a comedian.
Though the comedy might have been thought too low for his well-bred elegance of manner, in the event his transformation from assurance to breakdown contributed strikingly to the success of the farce. Otherwise he had few opportunities to be funny because he acted mostly, in upwards of 70 films, on the other side of the law.
In Dual Alibi (1947) he was a murderous trapeze artist. In Night and the City (1950) he was a wrestling promoter after Richard Widmark's life as an adulterer. In The Ladykillers (1955) he was the only thief in the group against letting the old lady of the lodging house know what they were up to, and met his end under a leisurely locomotive's wheels.
No Trees In The Street (1959) saw him as the stylish crook who tempted Sylvia Sims to marry him to escape the slums for an even worse fate; in Frightened City (1961) he formed a Soho syndicate of criminals and ended up on a skewer; and in Villa Rides (1968), as a cold-eyed general, he ruthlessly dispatched the president so that he himself might succeed to the office.
Other films in which Lom made his somewhat icy presence firmly felt included Whispering Smith (1952); The Net (1953); Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958); North-West Frontier (1959); Mr Topaz (1961); Our Man In Marrakesh (1966); The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971); And Then There Were None (1974); The Lady Vanishes (1977); Hopscotch (1981); Memed My Hawk (1983); King Solomon's Mines (1985); Whoops Apocalypse! and Scoop (1987). His last film, in 1993, was Son of Pink Panther, an ill-advised return to the series, starring Roberto Benigni as Clouseau's blundering son.
Hebert Lom was the author of two biographies: Enter A Spy (1971) about Christopher Marlowe, and Guillotin: The Eccentric Exploits of an Early Scientist (1992).
His first marriage, to the film distributor Dina Scheu, with whom he had two sons, was dissolved in 1979. He also had a daughter with the potter Brigitta Appleby. A second marriage, to the skincare specialist Eve Lacik, was dissolved in 1990.
Herbert Lom, born on September 11, 1917, and died September 27, 2012